A First of Its Kind: Kyrgyz Migrant Workers’ Union

A First of Its Kind: Kyrgyz Migrant Workers’ Union

Since the start of 2019, more than 2,000 migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan have joined together to protect their rights abroad through the new Migrant Workers’ Union. On October 17, more than 100 union delegates came together in the town of Isfana, Kyrgyzstan, for the union’s founding congress.

Solidarity Center, Kyrgyzstan, migrant workers, worker rights, human rights

Newly elected deputy chairwoman of the Migrant Workers’ Union, Batyrova Kanykey, addresses more than 100 delegates at their founding congress. Credit: Elena Rubtsova

The congress marks a crucial step as the union establishes itself as a leading support system for migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan. Delegates cast their votes to elect union leadership and planned activities and outreach to more workers in the coming year.
Workers from across three regions of western Kyrgyzstan—Batken, Jalal-Abad and Osh—worked together to build this new organization, with support from the Solidarity Center and Insan-Leilek, a local foundation that provided assistance to migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan over the last five years. The union has also garnered support from the Germany-based Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Caritas France.

Insan-Leilek celebrated the milestone with a video in Russian.

Protecting Workers Abroad

Migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan, and from around the world, often face discrimination, exploitation and unsafe working conditions when they arrive in their destination countries. In Russia, a common destination for Kyrgyz migrants, workers have reported working without official contracts or having their wages stolen, with few opportunities to stand up for their rights and hold their employers accountable. Kyrgyz workers also travel to Kazakhstan, Germany and elsewhere for work. Many stay year-round, while others travel back and forth each year for seasonal jobs.

“A large number of labor migrants are subjected to exploitation and violation of their rights by employers, employment agencies and other intermediaries,” says Gulnara Derbisheva, a human rights activist in Kyrgyzstan and the leader of Insan-Leilek. “They face abuse of authority by the police and other officials. In some cases, labor migrants are victims of trafficking and forced labor.”

Since 2015, the Solidarity Center and Insan-Leilek have held pre-departure trainings for working women and men who are preparing to migrate abroad, most of them to Russia. Through these trainings, thousands of migrants have learned about their rights and the protections they have under Russian labor law. Armed with this knowledge, many workers have started exercising their rights the moment they arrive at their new jobs.

Many migrants have used their knowledge of Russian labor law to negotiate higher wages and overtime pay. Others have worked with their employers to ensure they have fully signed contracts that specify their working conditions and document their ability to work in the country. Migrant women have also learned how to protect their rights, including avoiding human traffickers and reporting workplace harassment.

The Solidarity Center also provides training participants with contact information for local legal support in their destination countries. Through hotlines and free consultations, workers can seek legal help if or when they encounter issues on the job, such as wage theft and harassment.

The Solidarity Center’s pre-departure trainings have also shown migrants how they can join trade unions to further protect their rights, even when they are working abroad. As a result, workers decided they should create their own union so they could tailor it to support Kyrgyz migrants.

Migrant Workers Organizing for Justice

The creation of the Migrant Workers’ Union, its members say, is not just timely but also necessary to protect their rights at a time when more than one-fifth of Kyrgyz citizens are living and working abroad.

Gulzat, a delegate at the congress from the village of Boz-Adyr in the Batken region, first heard about the union at a training session the Solidarity Center and Insan-Leilek held in her village earlier in 2019. “I learned many important things about my labor rights and how they could be protected,” she says. “It was then that I decided to join the Migrant Workers’ Union because I am going back to work in Russia.”

Gulzat first went to work in Russia in 2010, where she experienced wage theft firsthand. “I became a dishwasher in a Moscow cafe and was a victim of fraud when I was left without a salary,” she explains. “I didn’t know where to turn for help, but now I know.”

The Migrant Workers’ Union currently has 2,150 members. But the union’s protections extend beyond just its members. Migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan rely on decent wages not only for themselves but also to support their families back home. Migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan remitted an estimated $2.48 billion in 2018, about 34 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Since 2017, Kyrgyzstan has been the most remittance-dependent country in the world, and remittances are particularly important in its western regions like Batken. As migrant workers learn to defend their rights abroad, they also ensure their families in Kyrgyzstan can have more economic security and access more opportunities at home.

“Everybody needs their union,” says Gulzat. “Especially migrants.”

Landmark Agreement for Kenya’s Informal Workers

Landmark Agreement for Kenya’s Informal Workers

Three trade unions representing Kenya’s formal-sector workers in food, health, education and metals signed memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with informal worker associations in their respective sectors yesterday. The agreements formalize efforts by affiliates of the Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-K) to organize workers in Kenya’s outsized and growing informal sector and make union representation of 5,600 newly organized informal workers official. With these agreements, for the first time, Kenya’s trade unions have brought informal-sector workers such as vendors, cleaners, autobody workers and mechanics under the union umbrella, giving them access to the country’s legal framework that protects formal workers.

“We are so excited. We have a dependable partner. Things will get better for us from now on,” said Grogon/Ngara Food Vendors Association Chairman Peter Ndirangu.

The agreements were signed during a public ceremony on October 29, 2019. Signatory organizations include the Kenya Union of Commercial, Food and Allied Workers (KUCFAW), Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA) and the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers (AUKMW) together with their respective informal worker associations.

“We will walk together; we will fight together; we will learn together,” said AUKMW General Secretary and COTU-K Women’s Committee National Chair Rose Omamo—who is also a former mechanic.

The Informal sector represented almost 84 percent of total employment in Kenya in 2018 and increased by more than 5 percent from 2014–2018, to 14.9 million people. In the financial year ending June 2018, more than 80 percent of new jobs were created in the informal sector while only 16.4 percent were created in the formal sector.

“The three unions are not waiting until they have no more members, they are aggressively organizing informal workers,” said United Domestic Workers of America AFSCME Local 3930 Executive Director Doug Moore, who attended the signing in a show of solidarity by his local’s 91,000 members. Moore is also a member of the Solidarity Center’s Board of Trustees.

Informal associations represented in the agreements include the Ambira Jua Kali Association, the Eastleigh Hawkers Association, Grogon/Ngara and Muthurwa food vendors, the Migingo Mechanics Self Help Group and the Nairobi Informal Sector Confederation (NISCOF).

Until now, working women and men in Kenya’s informal economy have been left outside the legal framework that protects formal workers, and so they have little power to advocate for themselves. Solidarity Center partner COTU-K has focused increasingly in recent years on organizing and formalizing workers in the informal sector with the goal of protecting all workers’ livelihoods and ensuring safe and secure work for all.

A decline in the number of formal jobs is a global trend. Working women and men in the informal economy—among them, day laborers, domestic workers, kindergarten teachers, sugarcane cutters and call center workers—now comprise the majority of the workforce in many countries. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that two billion people hold jobs in the informal labor market, with the largest percentage of these jobs being in low-income countries.

The Solidarity Center is part of a broad-based movement to help workers come together to gain the knowledge and confidence to assert their rights and raise living standards. In 35 countries, we provide trainings and programs to help precarious workers better understand their rights, organize unions to mitigate job vulnerabilities, and learn to bargain for improved conditions and wages.

Hundreds of Worker Rights Lawyers Set to Meet in Mexico

Hundreds of Worker Rights Lawyers Set to Meet in Mexico

More than 100 worker rights lawyers from around the world will identify common challenges, share successes and plan strategic partnerships next week in Mexico City at the first International Lawyer Action Network (ILAW) conference.

“The ILAW Network’s inaugural conference in Mexico City aims to bring together lawyers from around the world to construct bottom-up strategies to promote and defend the rights of workers, associations and unions,” says Jeff Vogt, Solidarity Center Rule of Law director and ILAW board chair. “With workers facing constant attacks worldwide, it is more critical than ever that their advocates provide the best support possible.” 

The Solidarity Center launched ILAW in December 2018 as a global hub for worker rights lawyers to facilitate innovative litigation, help spread the adoption of pro-worker legislation and defeat anti-worker laws. Since then, more than 350 hundred individuals and organizations from more than 50 countries have joined, most recently from the Nigerian Labor Congress

“ILAW is needed now more than ever to effectively represent workers across borders,” says Ruwan Subasinghe, International Transport Workers’ Federation legal adviser and founding member of the ILAW Advisory Board, which includes 20 lawyers from 20 countries with expertise on a broad range of legal matters. 

“This conference gives progressive worker rights lawyers a much-needed opportunity to learn from each other, build networks and strengthen cooperation.”

Globalizing Strategies to Protect Worker Rights

Participants from dozens of countries at the November 4–5 conference will discuss corporate accountability in supply chains, migrant and informal worker rights, the employment relationship, employment discrimination in all its forms, and workers’ right to exercise freedom of association. 

In sharing success stories, legal advocates, who have been instrumental in ensuring workers achieve justice, seek to take their victories globally. 

In 2018, for instance, worker rights lawyers won a key victory in Thailand, where a court dismissed criminal defamation charges against 14 migrant workers from Myanmar who faced jail time after reporting abusive working conditions on a poultry farm. The workers left the farm in 2016 and filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand describing forced overtime, unlawful salary deductions, passport confiscation and restrictions on movement. 

“I see the ILAW network as a basis of strategic development of lawyers practicing labor law worldwide, as a source of sharing best practices and the opportunity to bring each other’s knowledge home to our countries to determine its best implementation,” says Raisa Liparteliani, vice president of the Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC) and founding ILAW Board member.

The conference will enable participants “to share best practices and challenges of lawyers from different countries and build the common strategy for worker rights protection, covering not only litigation but advocacy campaigns, law making process, awareness raising and more,” she says.

Follow Solidarity Center on Twitter and Facebook for updates throughout the conference.

A First of Its Kind: Kyrgyz Migrant Workers’ Union

A First of Its Kind: Kyrgyz Migrant Workers’ Union

Since the start of 2019, more than 2,000 migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan have joined together to protect their rights abroad through the new Migrant Workers’ Union. On October 17, more than 100 union delegates came together in the town of Isfana, Kyrgyzstan, for the union’s founding congress.

Solidarity Center, Kyrgyzstan, migrant workers, worker rights, human rights

Newly elected deputy chairwoman of the Migrant Workers’ Union, Batyrova Kanykey, addresses more than 100 delegates at their founding congress. Credit: Elena Rubtsova

The congress marks a crucial step as the union establishes itself as a leading support system for migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan. Delegates cast their votes to elect union leadership and planned activities and outreach to more workers in the coming year.
Workers from across three regions of western Kyrgyzstan—Batken, Jalal-Abad and Osh—worked together to build this new organization, with support from the Solidarity Center and Insan-Leilek, a local foundation that provided assistance to migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan over the last five years. The union has also garnered support from the Germany-based Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Caritas France.

Insan-Leilek celebrated the milestone with a video in Russian.

Protecting Workers Abroad

Migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan, and from around the world, often face discrimination, exploitation and unsafe working conditions when they arrive in their destination countries. In Russia, a common destination for Kyrgyz migrants, workers have reported working without official contracts or having their wages stolen, with few opportunities to stand up for their rights and hold their employers accountable. Kyrgyz workers also travel to Kazakhstan, Germany and elsewhere for work. Many stay year-round, while others travel back and forth each year for seasonal jobs.

“A large number of labor migrants are subjected to exploitation and violation of their rights by employers, employment agencies and other intermediaries,” says Gulnara Derbisheva, a human rights activist in Kyrgyzstan and the leader of Insan-Leilek. “They face abuse of authority by the police and other officials. In some cases, labor migrants are victims of trafficking and forced labor.”

Since 2015, the Solidarity Center and Insan-Leilek have held pre-departure trainings for working women and men who are preparing to migrate abroad, most of them to Russia. Through these trainings, thousands of migrants have learned about their rights and the protections they have under Russian labor law. Armed with this knowledge, many workers have started exercising their rights the moment they arrive at their new jobs.

Many migrants have used their knowledge of Russian labor law to negotiate higher wages and overtime pay. Others have worked with their employers to ensure they have fully signed contracts that specify their working conditions and document their ability to work in the country. Migrant women have also learned how to protect their rights, including avoiding human traffickers and reporting workplace harassment.

The Solidarity Center also provides training participants with contact information for local legal support in their destination countries. Through hotlines and free consultations, workers can seek legal help if or when they encounter issues on the job, such as wage theft and harassment.

The Solidarity Center’s pre-departure trainings have also shown migrants how they can join trade unions to further protect their rights, even when they are working abroad. As a result, workers decided they should create their own union so they could tailor it to support Kyrgyz migrants.

Migrant Workers Organizing for Justice

The creation of the Migrant Workers’ Union, its members say, is not just timely but also necessary to protect their rights at a time when more than one-fifth of Kyrgyz citizens are living and working abroad.

Gulzat, a delegate at the congress from the village of Boz-Adyr in the Batken region, first heard about the union at a training session the Solidarity Center and Insan-Leilek held in her village earlier in 2019. “I learned many important things about my labor rights and how they could be protected,” she says. “It was then that I decided to join the Migrant Workers’ Union because I am going back to work in Russia.”

Gulzat first went to work in Russia in 2010, where she experienced wage theft firsthand. “I became a dishwasher in a Moscow cafe and was a victim of fraud when I was left without a salary,” she explains. “I didn’t know where to turn for help, but now I know.”

The Migrant Workers’ Union currently has 2,150 members. But the union’s protections extend beyond just its members. Migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan rely on decent wages not only for themselves but also to support their families back home. Migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan remitted an estimated $2.48 billion in 2018, about 34 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Since 2017, Kyrgyzstan has been the most remittance-dependent country in the world, and remittances are particularly important in its western regions like Batken. As migrant workers learn to defend their rights abroad, they also ensure their families in Kyrgyzstan can have more economic security and access more opportunities at home.

“Everybody needs their union,” says Gulzat. “Especially migrants.”

Zimbabwe: Abductions Targeting Worker Rights Defenders

Zimbabwe: Abductions Targeting Worker Rights Defenders

Doctors in Harare are protesting the abduction and disappearance of the acting president of the Zimbabwean Hospital Doctors Association (ZHDA), Peter Magombeyi. His disappearance is part of a pattern of violence against civil society defenders in the country, according to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and other rights groups.

More than 50 trade union leaders and opposition activists have been abducted in the middle of the night, many of them tortured, in Zimbabwe since January of this year, according to rights groups.

The  death threats Magombeyi received before his disappearance closely parallel those targeting ZCTU President Peter Mutasa and Secretary General Japhet Moyo.

“What is frightening to some of us,” says Moyo, “[is that] the network cell phone numbers used are the same as those that were used in sending threats to myself previously.”

An attempted fact-finding visit by a delegation of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in February this year resulted in denial of visas for most of the delegation and the arrest of  ITUC-Africa Secretary General Kwasi Adu Amankwah by state security. The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and association, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, yesterday began a 10-day visit to assess Zimbabwe’s performance regarding respect of citizens’ right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.

Ongoing death threats and a sustained government crackdown have forced Moyo and Mutasa into hiding, impeding ZCTU’s ability to effectively represent its members and ensure workers’ right to freedom of association. Citing failure to act, the ZCTU last month petitioned Zimbabwe police to investigate and bring to justice individuals who continue to threaten its leaders. Meanwhile, the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) dismissed reports of kidnappings Tuesday as “alleged abductions as a means to tarnish Zimbabwe’s image and compromise its security.”

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s economy flounders and inflation and price hikes  complicate Zimbabwean workers’ already difficult lives.

In the aftermath of a civil society protest against rising prices and a financial tax increase in October last year,  some trade unionists were beaten; Mutasa, Moyo and 33 other trade unionists were arrested; senior ZCTU leaders were forced into hiding; and ZCTU Harare offices were cordoned off by some 150 police.  After ZCTU helped organize a national strike in January this year to again protest price hikes, violent clashes resulted in 12 deaths and 320 injuries, blamed by human rights organizations on the army and police. Police seeking Mutasa after the protests allegedly assaulted his brother at his home and intimidated ZCTU staff. Arrested and charged with subversion for their role in the January protests, Mutasa and Moyo were left in legal limbo for months, after the Zimbabwe government repeatedly postponed their trials.

The majority of Zimbabwean workers eke out a living in the informal economy, struggling to survive on less than $1 a day. Those with formal jobs often do not fare well either. A 2016 study by the Solidarity Center found that 80,000 workers in formal jobs did not receive wages or benefits on time, if at all. In many cases, they made only enough to get to work.

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